As we are all realizing right about now, November and December are a busy months for holidays. Here in America we focus mostly on Thanksgiving and Christmas, but around the world there are several holidays celebrated by different faiths. November 30 - December 1 is Mawlid al-Nabi, when Muslims celebrate the birth of the prophet Mohammed. December 8 is Rohatsu or Bodhi Day when Buddhists celebrate Buddha becoming enlightened. December 12 begins Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights. December 16 - 24 is Las Posadas in Mexico where they reenact the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. December 26 - January 1 is Kwanzaa, the American celebration of African family, community and culture.
In one of my current Language Arts classes, I have students from three different faiths who will celebrate Christmas plus two of the other holidays listed above. Because of this diversity, reading traditional Christmas stories or poems no longer works. Some teachers get around this by not connecting curriculum to the holidays at all. I’ve tried this in the past, but my students (high schoolers, mind you) were actually so excited to celebrate the holidays that they were disappointed when we basically didn’t acknowledge them in class (and were sure to share their disappointment with me).
So I’ve started taking a different approach to choosing literature during the holiday season. I try to focus on what the various holidays have in common. After doing some research on each holiday, I narrowed it down to three general themes: 1) having gratitude for our blessings 2) showing compassion and caring for others 2) finding peace in our lives. When we focus on these common themes rather than the holidays themselve, it opens the door for a wealth of wonderful literature to be taught.
Below are suggestions for stories that can be used in elementary, middle and high school to teach the holiday-inspired themes above.
- Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney - This book is traditionally taught in the Spring because of the main character’s penchant for planting lupines, but I read it with my girls (ages 5 and 9) at the holidays. Miss Rumphius challenges readers to do something to make the world more beautiful. What an ideal challenge for the holidays!
- Stone Soup by Jon J Muth - There are many versions of this timeless tale, but I really love Muth’s because of its beautiful watercolor illustrations.The lesson that we can all do our little bit to help our community is so applicable to the food drives, coat drives, etc that happen in our schools at the holidays.
- Bear Says Thanks by Karma Wilson - My daughters love the bear books for their simple rhymes and fun illustrations of the forest animals. In this story bear is sad because he has nothing to share at the feast; his friends help him realize his company and stories are enough. Kids can definitely relate to that idea.
- Thank You, M’am by Langston Hughes - When young Roger tries to steal the purse of Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones, he gets more than he bargained for. Even though his intentions were bad, Mrs. Washington Jones treats Roger with love and dignity, finding out why he would steal in the first place and then giving him money! It’s a great lesson in empathy fitting for the holidays.
Baker’s Helper by CB Anderson - In this simple piece of flash fiction; a young bakery clerk tries to help a hungry girl but finds the task harder than he imagined. This is a great story for teaching preteens the subtleties of how to show caring and be charitable while still maintaining a person’s dignity.
- Raymond’s Run by Toni Cade Bambera - This heartwarming story introduces readers to Squeaky, who starts off confident, almost arrogant, in her running ability. By the end of the story, she realizes that helping her mentally-disabled brother, Raymond, is more important to her. The lesson of putting others first and helping others shine could provide a good holiday challenge: how can students help others shine during the holiday season?
- Letter, Much Too Late by Wallace Stegner - This essay appears in a collection of Stegner’s writings called Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs. Though Stegner is known for his writing about the West, this tear-inducing essay is simply about an old man missing his mother and wishing he had told her how much she meant to him before she died. It is a powerful reminder to students to not take people for granted and to show love and appreciation while we still can. I read it with students every year before Thanksgiving, and they write their own “letters, right on time.”
StoryCorps Podcast- This started as a narrative project over a decade ago, and now almost 10,000 people from across the US have shared stories. The stories range from heartwarming to heartbreaking and everything in between. You can listen to the podcasts or print off the transcripts to read. Reader’s Digest offers 3 great stories to read during the holidays to remind us of what’s really important in life.
- Three Questions by Leo Tolstoy - Speaking of what is really important in life, this parable addresses exactly that idea. The theme of focusing on the present and the people in our lives works perfectly during the holidays.
Here at Pampered Teacher, we hope your holidays (whichever holidays they may be) are full of joyful and peaceful moments spent with family and friends.